Around-the-World Trip: Luang Prabang, Laos!

*by Whitney*

This was the seventh country we visited on our trip, and the second country in the Southeast Asian portion of our trip!

If you haven’t already, check out my posts on our other stops: 

Luang Prabang Timeline: September 16th-23rd

This was the next stop after our one month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were sad to leave our “home” in Thailand, and from Luang Prabang moving forward, we would only be spending a week or less in each location. This was a bit of a bummer for us because we really enjoyed having a full month in Chiang Mai to relax and take our time. But, our motto has been, “What happens after this? Answer: more vacation!” haha. So not too much to be sad about really! And, I had read great things about Luang Prabang, so I was excited to check it out!

We did hear from the owner at our gym in Chiang Mai, who had lived in the US and spoke good English, that Laos in general was quite a bit behind Thailand in technology. He kept saying, “Why you go to Laos? They’re like 30 years behind us!” haha. But regardless, we were excited to check it out! I would say he was right in many ways. It was not as developed, but there was still plenty to enjoy.

About Luang Prabang

It’s a small city in the northern part of Laos, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It used to be the capital city of Laos until 1975. Laos was once colonized by France, so you can see a lot of European architectural influence in Luang Prabang. The streets are quaint and beautiful, and the city feels very clean. It has been named a World Heritage Site, which has preserved much of its ancient culture and saved it from high rise buildings, and traffic lights! Outside of the touristy part of town, you can see that much of it is not very developed, with dirt roads and small shacks on the side of the road.

Historically, Luang Prabang was more difficult to reach, whether by boat, bus/car, or private plane. But about 5 years ago they built a new airport, which has allowed commercial airlines to fly in and out, giving easier access to more tourists. Because of this, and their dependence on tourism for the economy, you can feel how touristy the town is. Although it was lovely, we did notice the prices were a little higher than Chiang Mai, and the tuk-tuk drivers, store and restaurant workers bothered you a lot more for your business. It was a lot harder to blend in here, because the majority of Western people there are tourists, so we stick out like a sore thumb. Whereas in Chiang Mai, there were a lot of ex-pats and digital nomads living there, so the locals may not have known seeing us on the street if we were just visiting or lived there.

In general, Laos is more conservative than Thailand, and visitors are encouraged to dress more modestly to respect their culture. We found the Loatian people to be very kind, though maybe not quite as friendly as we encountered in Thailand (unless, as stated, they were trying to beg for your business).

Where We Stayed

We stayed in a small room in a “Guest House” in Luang Prabang. They don’t really have hotels there (maybe a few small “boutique” hotels), but mostly it’s Guest Houses which are small buildings with a few rooms. Ours was located very close to the night market and just a short walk to everything we wanted to see and do in town. The room was small, but it had everything we needed: a big bathroom by Southeast Asian standards; a mini fridge; free coffee and water; a TV and wifi (although the wifi was not that great!); a king sized bed; and a nice shared balcony. The staff was very friendly, and they offered to set us up for some tours. However, we found that we got a better deal by just negotiating with Tuk Tuk drivers ourselves to get dropped off and picked up where we wanted to go. The guided tours were a lot more pricey than what we did in Chiang Mai!

Food and Drink

We made some friends from England who were on our flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and rode in a taxi with us from the airport. We went out to dinner and drinks with them a few times and enjoyed some local as well as Western food, and plenty of “BeerLao” (their local beer).

Jared and I also went to a couple good coffee shops/cafes with great Western breakfast (which we like to enjoy in the afternoon since we still do Intermittent Fasting most of the time)! Besides that, we ate quite a few meals at the street food stands near the night market. But, we found that they didn’t have near the selection of street food we came to know and love in Chiang Mai. In fact, they had about 10 stands along the main road that all had literally the exact same menu. Same food, same drinks, same printout, same everything, ha. We did find that the prices were slightly higher for food and beverages there compared to Chiang Mai, but definitely still cheap by US standards.

What We Did

We had a week there, so we definitely had a good balance of relaxing, sleeping in, casually walking around, and working on our websites, along with taking in the local culture and enjoying some fun activities!

Our favorite, and perhaps the most well known site in Luang Prabang, was the Kuang Si Waterfall, which during much of the year boasts gorgeous turquoise waters in the natural pools below the waterfall. Unfortunately, during our visit it was rainy season, and many of the natural bodies of water become muddy. When we visited, the water was slightly green, but not quite the gorgeous blues we had seen in pictures. Regardless, we had a great time. We joined up with our friends from England and negotiated a Tuk Tuk driver to take us there (about an hour drive), wait for 4 hours, and drive us back for 200,000 kip total (~$23, or less than $6 per person). We were able to check out the bear conservatory, enjoy all the parts of the waterfall and pools, hike up to the top of the falls, get some great photo ops, and take a swim in the chilly lower pool. Our new friends even got some awesome footage on their drone, and luckily didn’t lose it in the trees (although there was a close call)!

Besides Kuang Si Waterfall, Jared and I also took a trip to the Tad Sae Waterfall, which wasn’t nearly as impressive but was still an interesting sight! The waterfall was raging due to heavy rain the night before, but we didn’t see anyone else swimming there, so we didn’t either as we were unsure if it was safe.

We took in some amazing sunsets over the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. We got some great views from cafes/restaurants perched on the river banks; from taking the 400+ stairs to the top of Mount Phousi; and from going out on a private slow boat sunset river cruise with a local guide.

We went to two of the local gyms on a couple different days, with such a cheap day pass (less than $2 each). The gyms there had enough equipment to get a good workout, but they lacked AC which made for a pretty uncomfortable experience in 90+ degree weather!

We also went to several of the beautifully ornate temples in Luang Prabang, as well as the Luang Prabang National Museum (former Royal Palace).

Finally, an ancient tradition I was excited to take part in was the “Alms Giving Ceremony,” where at dawn, locals line the streets and present food to the Buddhist Monks. I woke up at 4:45am to make sure to get there in plenty of time, as I really wanted to try to blend in and not be “that tourist.” Armed with some helpful information I read online, some info from our front desk clerk, and guidance from a local alms giver on the street that morning, I had a lovely and successful experience. I walked right out onto the main street outside of our Guest House at 5:00 to find that hardly anyone was out yet. I was greeted by a local woman selling rice as offerings. I had read that you can get a better deal by getting rice in advance, but I didn’t care. I was happy to have her guidance for only 50,000 kip (~$5.80). She gave me two baskets of rice, took me to a stool on the sidewalk, showed me how to offer the rice to the monks, cut my bananas I had purchased previously and placed them in a bowl for me, and gave me a traditional sash to wear like everyone else.

It was a wonderful experience to be there that morning with the locals, showing respects to their traditions and the monks. As the sun started to rise around 5:30, the monks came in groups from their respective temples. They walked barefoot down the street in a line, holding pots, and I placed pinches of sticky rice and a banana (until my few I had ran out) into their bowls, with my head bowed so as not to make eye contact. We all sat in silence and respected this tradition, save for some less respectful groups of other tourists (a few Western, but mostly Asian actually!) who gathered on the street to snap photos. I didn’t see anything too disrespectful, but I don’t think as many of them did their homework as I did, based on the short shorts I saw, chattering, and camera flashes. Overall, I’m so glad I joined in on this tradition, as it gave me a new outlook on the local experience. Also, it was wonderful to be up that early, as I got to take a nice walk around town after the ceremony when it was still cool out, and many of the shops were just starting to open their doors. It was peaceful and really helped me to enjoy true Luang Prabang.

Overall Impression of Luang Prabang

I think I liked it better than Jared did. It was very small, quaint, and picturesque. I liked the slower pace of life there, the French-Indocina architecture, and the amazing natural beauty. It was so much quieter and less hustle-bustle than Chiang Mai, which calmed my soul. But, as Jared pointed out, it could get old after a while if you wanted some more modern amenities. So I think as far as places we’d like to spend a month or more, Chiang Mai still holds the cake. Of course, Jared also liked the cheaper prices and less people bothering you in Chiang Mai, but these didn’t have as big of an impact on my opinion as his. I think we’ll definitely come back to Luang Prabang, but a week or so is probably plenty there.

Next Stop: Vientiane, Laos!

Insider Tips for Luang Prabang:

  • Learn a few words in the Lao language. Most workers speak enough English to get by, or you can use context clues like pointing at menus or signs, but they definitely spoke a lot less English than in Chiang Mai!
  • Here’s a couple words to get you started:
    • Hello: Sabaidee
    • Thank you: Khawb Jai
  • The currency in Laos is the Kip, and boy is it confusing! The denominations are so large! We had a lot of trouble differentiating the bills. At the time of writing this, $1 is approximately 8600 kip! So we were using lots of 10,000+ kip bills, ha. I kept getting 1000’s and 10,000’s and 100,000’s confused! They don’t use coins, and the lowest denomination bill is 500 kip.
  • They use almost exclusively cash. I don’t think I used my card once except to withdraw money at the ATM.
  • We actually found that some of the currency exchange places had better rates than the rate we were getting at the ATM, which is rare, so this was the first time we exchanged some of our USD cash on the trip.
  • Try to dress a little more conservatively in general, but especially at the temples and museums, with pants/skirts below the knee, shoulders and chest covered. Something I failed to realize but found out too late was they don’t really even wear bathing suits to swim at the waterfalls, they stay mostly covered. So they recommend tourists have more conservative bathing suits at the falls. Unfortunately I only had my bikini. But at least after getting out of the water, don’t walk around in a bikini, cover back up.
  • No shoes in the guest houses. This is a custom all over Asia, but we found it especially more important at our guest house in Laos.
  • If you want to hike to the top of Mount Phousi to catch the sunset, go early. It’s a bit of a trek up the 400+ steps, and I wish we had allowed more time to stop and smell the roses instead of just rushing to the top to catch a glimpse of the fading sun. There were some amazing sights along the whole way up, not just at the top. The entire area is religious. You pass a couple of temples and religious grounds on the way up. So you should dress conservatively before you even begin the trek up, not just at the top. I recommend for the ladies, just wear a long dress or skirt that’s breathable, or bring a sarong to put on then take off after because it’s hot! Also, as we found out, the sky and river starts to look amazing a while before the sun officially sets, as well as a while after. But, on the way back down it was a bit dark, so have a flashlight (or the one on your phone handy).
  • If you want to hire a tuk tuk to take you to the waterfalls, try to meet some other tourists the day before to go with so you can get a better price. Also definitely negotiate/haggle! The best we could get was 200,000 kip for 4 people. But I read online others have haggled down to 30-40,000/per person.
    • Side note, if you see “30,000/pax,” the “pax” means “per person”.
  • Milk and dairy products are not easy to come by in Laos (and Southeast Asia in general). I had a run in with something I thought was regular cow’s milk, but I think it was actually fermented/buttermilk! Yuck! The language barrier was difficult and the store worker couldn’t help me. I’ve learned from now on I’m going to use Google Translate to ask “Is this regular cow’s milk?” ha!
  • When you go to Kuang Si Waterfall, do consider donating to the bear conservatory. I didn’t know at the time until I read later, but they don’t receive money from the admission fee to the waterfall. So they rely on separate donations.
  • Also, if you do decide to go to the Alms Giving Ceremony, whether you participate or just watch, please do your homework and be respectful. I read a lot about it before going. I was in a less populous part of the ceremony on a side street, and even there I saw some disrespectful tourists. I imagine it was worse in the center of town. This is an ancient and sacred tradition dating back to the 14th century, and I hate to think that us tourists are ruining it!
  • For tips on hygiene and sanitation, check out the insider tips section at the bottom of my Chiang Mai post! Most of it applies for all of Southeast Asia!

 

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